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On journalism, cheap shots at John Adams, and the legitimacy we give to the words others say
It comes as no surprise that a politician known for his lowbrow instincts is workshopping denigrating nicknames for his opponents as the 2024 Presidential cycle approaches. But there is a lesson to be learned from the recent past: It is absolutely not necessary to repeat the denigrations in order to report on the subject.
■ This reminder should be taped to every journalist's laptop and locked on every one of their smartphone screens: Every time you repeat a nasty nickname or a disingenuous turn of phrase -- even if you think you're merely mocking the nastiness yourself -- you're granting it a tiny little sliver of legitimacy. You don't have to do that. You really don't.
■ It's not just a lesson for journalists and commentators, of course. If the "social" part of "social media" means anything, then it is by every small act of engagement that ordinary users confer their own legitimacy on what is being said. And we can withhold that legitimacy by choosing not to take part.
■ Politics in America has always been something of a full-contact sport. Partisans on Thomas Jefferson's side in the 1800 Presidential campaign blasted John Adams as a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." It's always been rough-and-tumble.
■ But it takes a certain kind of laziness to merely transcribe insults and call it journalism. Quoting the insult legitimizes it. When a child calls another "Fatso" or "Dummy" on the playground, no competent teacher repeats the insult unless expressly necessary.
■ The central fact of an insult is what it says about the party expressing it. And if the only idea a person has available to express is a cartoonish insult, then they don't really have anything to say that is worth reporting.